YA Contemporary Fiction

THE SUMMER OF LOST LETTERS by Hannah Reynolds

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Until she finds her grandmother’s letters, most of Abby’s summer plans involve trying to avoid her ex. But the minute she starts reading the love letters from a mysterious man named Edward–who apparently wanted to marry her grandmother and still has a necklace that belonged to her–everything changes. Her grandmother never mentioned an Edward, or spending summers with a wealthy family on Nantucket. In fact, all Abby really knew about her grandmother was that she came to America alone as a toddler while her parents perished in Auschwitz. Now, Abby wants to learn more about the grandmother she loved but, as it turns out, barely knew.

After securing a job at a Nantucket bookstore for the summer, Abby is determined to find Edward, get some answers about her grandmother’s past, and get that necklace back–even if it means breaking into his mansion. But she didn’t count on Edward’s grandson, Noah, who is just as handsome and charming as he is determined to thwart Abby’s attempts to poke her nose in his family’s business. As the summer wears on and friendship blossoms into something more both Noah and Abby wrestle with the price of love: how much they are each willing to sacrifice for love of their families and for each other.

From the jacket summary and cover art, I did not expect to laugh out loud at this romance–but the banter! The premise of the romance of the grandparents and the tension between families left room for angst (and there was angst) but the thrust of the contemporary romance is summer fling turns to forever love over a series of adventures and capers. It was sweet, funny, and at times heart-wrenching, full of history and thorny ethical dilemmas, and I enjoyed every minute of it. Highly recommend to fans of YA contemporary romance who like family drama and a bit of mystery.

Amazon.com: The Summer of Lost Letters: 9780593349724: Reynolds, Hannah:  Books

#12DaysOfKidlit 2021

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Happy November!

I know, I know. It’s basically still Halloween. But with supply chain issues and paper shortages, we’ve got to think about the holidays early if we’re gifting books to the kids in our lives. That’s why I’m celebrating the #12DaysOfKidlit. I’m choosing my 12 favorite titles from 2021–6 YA and 6 Middle Grade to highlight (in no particular order). Think of this as a gift guide for the young reader in your lives. I’ll update daily for the next 12 days, adding a new title each time.

But (tragically) even though I read 160+ books this year (!), that doesn’t even come close to the number of books that came out. And since everyone’s reading interests are different, my favorites might not be right for you or the kids on your list.

So…you should play too!

On Twitter and Instagram, use #12DaysOfKidlit to throw up your favorite kids/teen books of the year and see what books others loved! The celebration runs from November 1-12.

Let’s fill everyone’s holiday lists with the best Kidlit of the year!


Today’s Picks:

INSTRUCTIONS FOR DANCING by Nicola Yoon –and– LIKE A LOVE SONG by Gabriela Martins

I received Advance Reader Copies of these books.

I couldn’t pick just one of these because I can’t get either one of them out of my head–and for different reasons. 

INSTRUCTIONS FOR DANCING is a sublime exploration of that eternal human question: is love worth the risk of heartbreak? It’s a romance, so we know the answer has to be yes, but the journey to that answer is raw, complex, and beautiful. 

LIKE A LOVE SONG, on the other hand, is pure fun–a teen pop star and teen actor fake dating RomCom with perfectly executed tropes. The story is grounded by the MC’s struggle with her identity in a racist society–trying to find balance between her place in a community of artists pursuing a dream career and her place in her family and Brazilian community. 

But what these books have in common is that both of the romances were mature and realistic enough that even I–an old(ish) married lady–connected with them in a powerful way, and I think that’s why I loved them both so much. These are romances I will read as a pick me up again and again.


More:

CANDIDLY CLINE by Kathryn Ormsbee

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

I loved this book because I loved Cline. She is such a believable, lovable 13 year old kid, and as much as she’s been put through some difficult stuff (in the story and before it begins) she bounces back, she keeps going, and she finds supportive friends and adults who help her through. Her voice is so honest and hopeful as she navigates her first crush, coming out to family and friends, and protecting herself when people are hateful to her because of who she loves. And of course the main thrust of her story is how she chases down her dream of becoming a singer, so there’s lots of opportunities to cheer this wonderful heroine on.


SIX CRIMSON CRANES by Elizabeth Lim

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

Not only was this novel woven skillfully from many, many folklore threads, but it surprised me again and again. Even thinking back on the story now, I’m smiling remembering some of the twists. Some of the folklore was new to me, which was fun. Some was familiar but subverted, which was also fun. And throughout the whole story shone family devotion and the perseverance of the young heroine–no matter how annoying her brothers got.


THE THING I’M MOST AFRAID OF by Kristin Levine

Reading this book felt like taking a vacation (which in 2021, was much appreciated!). The detail of the Austrian setting–not just the landscape, but the culture and community–immersed me entirely in that world. And on top of that, the character’s experience with her panic disorder as she figured out how to accept help and develop more effective coping strategies rang so true to me. I don’t usually see that experience represented in the books I read–or if it is represented, it’s in books that are overall soul-crushingly intense–so to see a character with severe anxiety in an uplifting book about family and hope was incredible.


EAT YOUR HEART OUT by Kelly deVos

As a fan of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, I was grinning all the way through this satirical sci-fi/horror. It delivered on humor, on social commentary, on scares–and because there were so many first person narrators (something I don’t usually like), I had no idea who would live and who would die. As long as one kid made it, there would be someone to tell the story. The question was: who?…


FAST PITCH by Nic Stone

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

When it comes to flawless middle grade fiction, this book is it. It tackles the huge and important topic of racism in sports (and other areas of life), features a group of girls kicking butt on and off the field, and has a thrilling mystery that is impossible to stop reading. It is a winner on so many levels, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.


SAY IT OUT LOUD by Allison Varnes

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

As a musical theater-obsessed former-tween myself, I am always a sucker for stories about kids finding their voices through the arts. But this one had me particularly excited when the tweens take their voices off the stage to fight for something they believe in. Add the fun, heartwarming friendships and representation of a main character who stutters and you have a book that has stuck with me all year.


THE FOREST OF STOLEN GIRLS by June Hur

I read so many YA mystery/thrillers this year, so why has this historical mystery stuck with me? Part of it was the history. Part of it was the feminism. But I think most of it was the atmospheric quality of the novel. There were no cheap scares here, no gimmicks to draw out suspense. The setting of the village, the disappearances, the murky past, and the untrustworthy community members kept my spine tingling the whole way through.  


A KIND OF SPARK by Elle McNicoll

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

It is possible that this one violates the spirit of #12DaysOfKidlit since it wasn’t technically released this year. But I am U.S. based, and it was released here in 2021, and I loved it too much to leave it off my list. The authenticity of the autistic representation was probably the reason I connected with this book so deeply, although the novel has so many strengths. I love middle grade books where children are the moral compass and agents of change in their communities, and the way this particular child forces her community to process the uncomfortable immorality of their pasts and present to move toward a better future…*chef’s kiss* 


More:

ME (MOTH) by Amber McBride

I think the reason this poetic literary novel is still haunting me is the rich soil of history, culture, and spirituality that supports the characters. The emotions are deep and intense, but they are so rooted in the exquisite world-building that the narrative never feels heavy, even when the subject matter is. The characters are always growing up and out from their experience of loss, both in their recent pasts and in their ancestral histories, always climbing toward hope. I am not at all surprised this book is on the National Book Award’s Finalists list.


SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA by Cynthia Leitich Smith

PETER PAN is one of those books I haven’t read my kids because as much as I loved it as a child, every time I pick it up as an adult I’m horrified–partly by the racism on the page but perhaps more by the fact that I had no idea it was there when I was a kid. Those were just things I internalized that contributed to my unconscious prejudices. And maybe that’s why Cynthia Leitich Smith’s SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA blew me away. Because it isn’t a scathing dismantling of Barrie’s classic. It’s a reimagining of the enchanting world that both holds Peter Pan accountable for the racism and other problematic aspects of the original story and somehow recaptures and preserves the spirit, tone, and even narrative style of the original. This is the novel I want to read my children.


THE DARKNESS OUTSIDE US by Eliot Schrefer

I haven’t been shy about my deep and abiding love of Eliot Schrefer’s sci-fi romance. I think one of the reasons it’s stuck with me so many months after I first read it is the way he perfectly captures the spirit of both genres. I would read this if I were in the mood for sci-fi, and I would read it if I were in the mood for romance. It has all of those little melty moments and relationship tensions I want in a love story plus the edge-of-your-seat, cannot-stop-turning-pages, omg-are-they-about-to-die?! moments I love in YA sci-fi. I can’t get this book out of my head, and I couldn’t think of a better title to start off the 12 Days of Kidlit.

YOU CAN GO YOUR OWN WAY by Eric Smith

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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

Adam throws all of his energy into keeping his family’s pinball arcade up and running; it’s his way of preserving his dad’s memory. But with finances tight, his mom is starting to give up hope and talk about finally giving in to the esports cafe that wants to buy them out. The esports cafe that is owned by Whitney’s dad.

Although they were once best friends, Whitney has barely spoken to Adam since his dad died, and although Whitney’s mom also owns a shop in the old city center by the pinball arcade, her dad represents everything Adam hates–the destruction of classic culture in favor of sleek new technology and of course, money. But Whitney has problems of her own and when an act of vandalism throws them into each others’ paths again, their reluctant reunion will force them to acknowledge the past and confront the obstacles that are keeping them from defining their own futures.

Romantic, funny, and heartwarming, this YA contemporary has a perfect blend of fun and emotional depth. The pinball background and general ’80s nostalgia creates a delightful atmosphere, and I found myself longing to be part of the Old City shop owners’ community with their wonderful, hilarious camaraderie. I highly recommend this to fans of YA contemporary fiction and YA rom coms.

DARLING by K. Ancrum

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Wendy’s parents may as well have her under house arrest. It was their idea to move to Chicago so that she could go to a prestigious prep school (and so they could adopt more kids to keep under house arrest). But now they won’t let her hang out with her friends–all because when her mom was younger she saw some kid get murdered at a party in a graveyard.

Of course, Wendy’s parents aren’t home when a charismatic guy named Peter breaks into her house, and when he invites her to join him and his friend Tinkerbelle at a party, she can’t bring herself to say no. But instead of a party, Peter brings her home to meet the boys he’s taken under his wing–boys who give Wendy cryptic warnings that lead her to believe that Peter isn’t what he seems. With the police on their trail and something dramatic slated to happen later that night, Wendy will need to figure out who to trust if she’s going to make it home alive.

This dark Peter Pan twist is impossible to put down! I loved how Ancrum turned it into a thriller instead of a fantasy, drawing out the darkness that already exists in the original Peter Pan and infusing it with a new take on the concept of “eternal youth.” I was riveted. Highly recommend to fans of YA thrillers and dark contemporary.

Amazon.com: Darling: 9781250265265: Ancrum, K.: Books

JUST ASH by Sol Santana

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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

Ash is a boy. He has always known he was a boy, and his parents have always agreed. It even says “male” on his birth certificate. But his parents have always insisted that he never tell anyone that he is also intersex. It’s so rare and confusing, they taught him, that it’s better if it stays a secret.

Unfortunately, when Ash unexpectedly starts menstruating for the first time during soccer practice, his intersex identity suddenly becomes very public. He gets kicked off the team, his friends abandon him, and his parents insist that he is now a girl, enrolling him him in a new school where he is forced to wear a dress and use the girl’s bathroom. Ash struggles to please his parents, giving “being a girl” a try, but when they announce that they want to have his male genitalia surgically removed, he realizes that home is no longer safe. On the run, Ash soon learns that being intersex isn’t nearly as rare his parents led him to believe and that the fight to live as his true identity must begin with accepting and loving his own body.

JUST ASH is a message to intersex teens: you are not “wrong,” and you are not alone. The heartbreaking abuse Ash endures from his parents is balanced by the love and unmitigated acceptance from his older sister, his girlfriend, his intersex support group, and a supportive teacher. But the most heart-wrenching part of the book is how much a reality experiences like these are for many LGBTQIA+ teens. In addition to the positive (and grossly underrepresented) intersex perspective, the story and characters are compelling. I would recommend this novel to fans of YA contemporary fiction, to intersex readers who want to see their experiences represented, and to any teen reader who does not know what it means to be intersex.

VIOLET GHOSTS by Leah Thomas

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The house where Dani lives is just one in a long line of crappy living spaces. That’s what happens when you and your mom have to flee an abusive father/husband. You move frequently, stay wherever you can. But the houses don’t usually come with a ghost. Dani immediately connects with Sarah, the adolescent ghost, in part because they both know what it’s like to be hurt by a man. But Dani can’t tell Sarah that despite the name “Daniela,” Dani feels like a boy. He’s sure that if Sarah knew the truth about his identity, she’d never speak to him again.

When Dani and Sarah stumble on another ghost in the woods, Dani learns that abuse isn’t unique to the world of the living. When abusers die, they go right on abusing–sometimes the same people they abused in life. Dani is determined to find a way to protect the ghosts who are quickly becoming his closest friends. But will finding peace for others stop him from finding peace for himself?

Although there is a thrilling dose of speculative fiction in this ghost story, at its core, VIOLET GHOSTS is a story of surviving and healing after abuse and fighting to be true to one’s identity. It is set in the recent past, and until late in the book, Dani doesn’t know that there are other transgender people in the world (or even the term “transgender”). His struggle to figure out how to identify and even describe himself parallels the struggle of the ghosts to find a new way to fit into the world where they’ve existed merely as invisible victims, lying in the places where they died for years or even decades. The story is beautifully, emotionally told (I keep wanting to use the word haunting, but it will sound like a bad pun … but it is haunting…), and ultimately full of hope. I highly recommend it to fans of YA speculative fiction AND fans of YA contemporary.

Amazon.com: Violet Ghosts: 9781547604630: Thomas, Leah: Books

YOU’D BE HOME NOW by Kathleen Glasgow

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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

When Emory’s brother comes home from rehab, she hopes life will change for the better. Or as good as it can get after Joey nearly dying from a heroin overdose and Emmy nearly dying in the car accident that killed a classmate. At the very least, Emmy hopes to become less invisible. Maybe her parents will finally start paying some attention to her, instead of just to Joey and all his problems. And maybe the boy next door that she’s been hooking up with for ages will finally acknowledge her in public.

But even though neither of them was driving, the school community blames Emmy and Joey for their classmate’s death. And it turns out that Joey’s return from rehab is just the beginning of a long, arduous journey in his recovery from addiction. As Joey’s life crumbles again–and Emmy’s sex life becomes public in the worst possible way–a new community begins to form, and the hope Emmy had abandoned gradually flickers back to life.

Gorgeous prose and an infusion of classic literature elevate this story of a community’s coming-of-age into something truly exquisite. The suspenseful plot pushes readers along while authentic and complex emotions pull us deeper into the characters’ world. Though the novel takes on two mammoth social problems (the opioid crisis crisis and slut-shaming culture), Glasgow anchors them both in her protagonist’s struggle to be both noticed and respected by her family and community and also in the subplots of the parents and school community struggling to see outcasts as human beings. This novel is a must-read for any fan of YA contemporary fiction!

ME (MOTH) by Amber McBride

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Since the car accident that took the lives of Moth’s parents and brother, she has been living with her aunt in a Virginia suburb where all the other kids (most of them white) do their best to ignore her. Moth doesn’t mind. She has been doing her best to make herself invisible. If she hadn’t lived so exuberantly before, maybe there would have been enough life available in that hospital for the rest of her family to walk out, too.

When a Navajo teen starts at her school just before summer break, Moth finds herself connecting with another person for the first time since her family’s death. Sani is a musician, always drumming on his desk, reminding Moth of her life before the accident, when she danced as easily as she breathed. And when Sani flees his abusive stepfather at the same time that Moth’s aunt vanishes, it seems like fate that the two should go on an adventure together, in search of healing and their history. On a roadtrip across the South toward Sani’s father in New Mexico, a romance blossoms as they each connect with their ancestors’ experiences and grapple with the magic and miracle of first love and their place in the universe.

This beautiful YA novel-in-verse explores the ways that our ancestral history and romantic love can both root us in the world and set us free. Poignant and surprising, the story brims with complex emotions and exquisite yet authentic poetry. Fans of Elizabeth Acevado and anyone looking for a thought-provoking, immersive literary novel will not want to miss this gorgeous debut!

Featured Booklist: Book Club Titles for Kids and Teens

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The school year is underway, and whether you’re a teacher or librarian running a book club or a parent stockpiling good reading material for those inevitable Covid-exposure quarantines, I have a book list for you!

This list includes titles for upper elementary schoolers, middle schoolers, and high schoolers. All of the books were released within the last year, and they have a blend of unputdownable storytelling and though-provoking thematic content. As always, you will need to evaluate the individual titles to be sure they fit within the specific parameters and needs of your students/children, but think of this list as your launchpad.

I will continue to curate this list throughout the year, but titles include:

FAST PITCH by Nic Stone, a middle grade sports story about a girl combatting racial injustice while vying for a softball championship.

NIGHTINGALE by Deva Fagan, a middle-grade fantasy about an orphan thief, a reluctant prince, a magic sword, and worker’s rights in a racially diverse, Victorian-London-esque fantasy world.

GENERATION MISFITS by Akemi Dawn Bowman, a middle grade contemporary novel about four social outcasts and one popular girl who find friendship and the courage to express themselves through their mutual love of J-Pop.

ZARA HOSSAIN IS HERE by Sabina Khan, a YA contemporary novel about a Pakistani Muslim immigrant wrestling questions of home, identity, and belonging after a bigot targets her family with hateful vandalism.

VIOLET GHOSTS by Leah Thomas, a YA historical fantasy about a transgender boy in the ’90s coming to terms with his identity as he helps restless ghosts find justice and a safe haven in the afterlife.

THE DARKNESS OUTSIDE US by Eliot Schrefer, a YA sci-fi about two young men from rival countries on a mission to rescue a fellow spacefarer aboard a ship that may or may not be trying to kill them.

Check out the full list on Bookshop.org. (Don’t worry if you’re not looking to buy; just see what titles look good to you, then find them at your local or school library!)

WHERE I BELONG by Marcia Argueta Mickelson

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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

Millie isn’t sure how to tell her mom she got into Stanford. She knows she’ll be proud, but her mom counts on her to babysit her younger siblings while she’s busy as the housekeeper for a wealthy senator and his family. And after everything her mom sacrificed to get her family from the poverty and political upheaval of Guatemala to become naturalized U.S. citizens in Corpus Christi, Millie can’t just abandon her to go to school.

But when the senator uses Millie as an example of an asylum seeker success story in a speech decrying the policy of family separation at the border, she is thrust into an uncomfortable–and dangerous–spotlight. Violent anti-immigrant extremists burn her house to the ground and she finds herself living with the senator and his family. As journalists clamor for interviews and her feelings warm toward the senator’s teenage son, Charlie, Millie wrestles with her responsibility to her family, the tension between her social class and Charlie’s, a sense of obligation to use her own privilege as an American citizen to stand up for other immigrants, and her fervent desire to live a quiet, safe, and anonymous life.

Set in the very recent past (2018), this coming-of-age story spotlights issues of race, class, and identity as Millie confronts the injustice of U.S. immigration policy and the complex moral and emotional issues that arise when she is held up as an “ideal” Latina immigrant. As Charlie comes to better understand his prejudices and blindspots, Millie works through her own judgments and assumptions about others (especially her mother) and her rigid opinions about the right way to do things. A great addition to YA contemporary collections, this book would also provide fuel for discussion in high school Government/Civics classrooms.

Amazon.com: Where I Belong: 9781541597976: Mickelson, Marcia Argueta: Books